Fasavalu is the deputy principal of Wiri Central Primary School in South Auckland, a decile one school made up of 40 per cent Samoan students, 40 per cent Maori and 20 per cent ethnicities other than Pakeha.

Recently, Fasavalu was one of a study group of fellow Pacific academic colleagues based at the University of Auckland’s Manukau campus to receive degrees in education at masters level this month.

She graduated with a Master of Educational Leadership, with first class honours, and has been awarded the University of Auckland’s Fowlds Memorial Prize for the most distinguished masters thesis of 2015 in the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

Fasavalu’s thesis looks at the educational success of nine Samoan high school graduates aged between 18 and 22.

For the purposes of her study, she defined success as graduating from secondary school with NCEA Level Three and enough credits to enter university, which some have done and others haven’t.

“Not all students want to go to university but they should have that choice,” Fasavalu says. 

Having heard so much about the “the tail of educational underachievement” in relation to Maori and Pacific students, she was more interested in finding out what kind of teaching is working for those who succeed.

“My thesis is titled Tales from Above the Tail; I wanted to know what these teachers did right, looking through a lens of ‘cultural responsiveness’, that is, looking at whether effective teachers recognise that each student brings valuable cultural knowledge to the classroom.”

She found universally, the teachers these successful students deemed to be effective had valued them as people, had responded appropriately to their academic and cultural identities and hadn’t operated in a “one size fits all” sort of way.

“It’s all about knowing your learner within what we call in Samoan, the ‘Va Tapu-ia’ or sacred space or relationship,” Fasavalu says. 

“Within the va tapu-ia the teacher/student relationship is one of reciprocity. 

“The teacher enables the student to grow as a person, not just as a learner, and the teacher also learns from the wealth of knowledge the student brings.”

However, she says just having a good relationship with a student isn’t enough.

“You also have to be an effective teacher, otherwise that relationship breaks down. 

“It’s a dual thing with two pillars of influence involving teachers’ belief about students - who they are - and the way they learn best.”

Fasavalu also found teachers who believed they could make a notable difference to their students’ achievements did exactly that.

To support each other’s efforts, Fasavalu’s study group, initiated by Professional Teaching Fellow at Manukau Fetaui Iosefo, got together once a week to discuss their work and offer each other feedback, do some quiet reading and writing and to share food, laughter and companionship.

Fasavalu believes the support of the group contributed significantly to its members’ success.